Liquor Liability: An Update

Several recent rulings have addressed who is responsible when alcohol is served

Recently, two court cases have revisited the difficult issue of host liability and, most particularly, what happens if you don’t provide the liquor but someone is hurt or killed after leaving your premises.

From the Midwest

In a case from Wisconsin, an intoxicated teenager struck a car while driving through an intersection. The people in the second car sued not only the teenager who was driving, but the owners of the property where the teen had been drinking, alleging that the driver had consumed alcohol at the defendants’ home.

It was alleged that the defendants were aware minors had consumed alcohol on their grounds, and that they were negligent because they failed to “supervise and monitor the activities on their property.” The defendants countered this by saying that they had not provided the alcohol.

While the trial court dismissed this part of the case, that wasn’t the end of the story: The intermediate appellate court reversed that ruling, and the appellate court’s ruling was reversed again by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which looked at the issue on the basis of public policy. The Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that a common-law claim for negligence cannot be maintained against social hosts who did not provide the alcohol yet might have known that guests were drinking.

To find otherwise, the Wisconsin Supreme Court stated, would be a significant extension of common-law liability. The decision said expecting more oversight from “a social host who did not specifically know of the particular person drinking and who did not provide the alcohol places too unreasonable a burden on that social host.” The court concluded the appropriate party to pursue in such a case would be the provider of the alcohol.

The takeaway for meeting planners, at least in Wisconsin, is a lifting of some of the liability burden. Representatives of a meeting’s host might be aware of drinking, such as at a hospitality suite, but if they did not provide the alcohol, liability under a common-law doctrine does not apply.

From the East Coast

Whew, you say, that’s great news. But let’s see what the courts said in New Jersey.

In this case, an adult and a minor who had been drinking elsewhere visited a Cape May bar, where the man continued drinking but the teen was served only soda. Staff members insisted that the man not drive when the pair left, so the teen drove, crashing the car and killing the man.

The family of the deceased man went to court. The defendant this time was the bar and restaurant, an establishment that typically would be subject to New Jersey dram shop liquor law.

Since only soda was served to the teen, the New Jersey Appellate Court ruled that the bar was not subject to dram shop liability but was liable for common-law negligence. Even though the bar did not provide alcohol to the teen, and he drank elsewhere, the establishment was held responsible since no effort was made to keep both people from driving.

The impact of this decision is that even though no alcohol was served, if the bar knew or should have realized the teen was impaired, the establishment had a duty to protect everyone from the driver to the passenger to anyone they might hit with their car. The host had a duty to protect others from possible harm.

The sage advice here: No matter which state your event is held in, always act responsibly. Know who’s at the party and keep an eye on consumption. Most importantly, make sure no one who’s intoxicated gets behind a steering wheel.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.,is a senior partner in the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at [email protected].